The Value of Confrontation: Sometimes You Can't Avoid Heated Debate | Blatant Berry

Debates over what libraries should fund can get heated, but don't let that stop you from having them. All stakeholders need to not only prepare but discuss the budget, and to understand what new services will meet user demand. Good negotiators need to know when to stick to their guns, even if it means risking an argument. Good leaders also know when to concede and join with the team to ensure progress. Collegiality, civility, and good working relationships are important, but we can’t let the desire to get along prevent us from fully tackling the tough questions

John Berry photoWatching recent debates reminded me of a story I heard years ago from one of my favorite librarians, who asked not to be identified. As director of a small public library, she was working with the president of the library’s board of trustees to prepare the budget. The president was a highly respected local figure and CEO of a major corporation with worldwide connections.

This was back in the era when libraries were beginning to build collections of videos, and their popularity was growing. The director had decided to build a video collection to meet growing new demand from users. Purchasing the videos would add about ten percent to the library budget compared to the previous year. The board president told the director that the videos would be a good thing to cut. “I don’t think they are appropriate anyway,” he said. “The library should be about books!” The discussion triggered a relatively heated debate between them.

That debate continued when they took the budget to a meeting of the finance committee of the board. The board president suggested that increasing the budget was an example of bad management and the library ought to try to help the town save money. The library director responded that the trustees should support the development of the library and new services to meet user demand. The library finance committee watched in dismay as the two argued. The director was surprised when the finance committee approved the budget, videos and all.

Later, the board president and the library director took the budget to the town finance committee, which had always respected the board president. He ended his presentation by addressing the town finance committee chair, “Ned, I hate like hell to present you with a ten percent budget increase, but I’ve looked at this budget and I can’t see how we can cut a penny out of it.” The budget was approved. The library director was surprised, relieved, and grateful for the board president’s support.

A few weeks later, there was a reception to welcome new library trustees and a new board president to succeed the current one, whose term had expired. The departing president stopped by the director’s table to greet her. After naming all six of the new trustees, the departing president said, “I’ve checked with all of them. They all agree with me about the videos!” When the director looked up in shocked surprise, he quickly said, “Just kidding. It has been great fun working with you!”

That simple story illustrates important aspects of negotiation. A good negotiator has to know when to stick to his or her guns, even risking heated argument. However, a good leader also knows when to concede and end the debate to join with the team to ensure progress. Both leaders must maintain an effective and close relationship despite occasional differences. The debate over the videos strengthened the director and board president’s relationship and improved library service. The episode demonstrates that, while heated debate is sometimes necessary, it should be handled with respect and even in a spirit of friendship. It should be used rarely, only when crucial issues must be decided.

Today many library professionals may not remember a time when videos (and before that, fiction books!) were matters about which library leaders were likely to disagree. But the new crop of hot button issues, such as use of meeting rooms and challenged programs, are just as contentious, and turn on similar considerations: what the core library mission is, or should be; what the community and the individuals within it want and need; profession-wide values and best practices; how to allocate constrained resources; and how best to navigate those factors when they conflict. Collegiality, civility, and good working relationships are important, but we can’t let the desire to get along prevent us from fully tackling the tough questions.

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John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III ( is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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